When an hour of play isn’t an hour of play

I went down to Early Years this morning, hoping to pop in to some classrooms and learn about how language is taught and learned with those tiny kids! They were having their break when I first arrived, so I sat down and caught up on a few emails. Twenty minutes later, they were still at break.

“Hmm… they do have a long break don’t they?” I thought to myself and started to head off to another year group.

Luckily, though, I overheard a conversation that was going on between three girls in the little house by the front of EY. They were pretending to bake a cake and were discussing the ingredients of a cake, the process of how to bake a cake and the workings of an oven. They were also negotiating turns at doing each task and giving each other instructions to pass on their skills!

The time that these kids have to play gives them time to immerse themselves into their games and to set up scenarios that call for all sorts of communication and social skills to be used.

Another group of kids had set up the giant bowling pins and were being taught how to throw the bowling ball by one particularly confident boy. He had also organised a system for putting the pins upright again and collecting the bowling balls for the next person.

All around me were little social situations in which the kids were developing and applying social and communication skills. Language in its purest form.

But, what of the teachers? What about assessment? Is it really learning if the teachers aren’t teaching?

Well, the teachers on duty were watching, observing and guiding the students when situations arose that the students needed guidance or extension in. That is teaching, isn’t it?

Then, just before I left, I came across something very exciting. Four girls sitting together and sharing a book. Four girls who now, as Bonnie Campbell-Hill’s continuums put it, “see themselves as readers”.


Conceptual understandings from IB Language Arts Scope and Sequence Document

Speaking and Listening:

Viewing and Presenting:



  1. Kate Lynch

    I love that you call it ‘break’. We see it as a fundamental part of our day and are always mindful to defend the ‘outdoor programme’ when balancing the curriculum to ensure they get it for an hour every day. You will also find similar situations happening inside, in classrooms and the central area, where the children guide themselves in play rather than following structured lessons, and where the adults’ role is very background rather than forefront. This is where a lot of constructing of meaning takes place and they build up their social skills, language of course and their inquiry nature.

    • Mr. Sam

      I went through a formative experience you see. At first, I just saw “break”. But then, when I saw beneath the surface I became aware of what was actually going on!

      It actually reminded me of the approach Chad and I took to our Grade 4 Camp when we were working in China together. The kids had a lot of “down time”, but we saw that time as being full of potential learning experiences and full of opportunities for us to assess, share, guide and extend our students’ experiences.

  2. Simone

    I like how you have added the relevant conceptual understandings to your posts now Sam. Seeing the written curriculum in action is inspiring.

  3. Chad

    This post really spoke to me. The importance of play is something we lose as we get older. Why is that? Do we think that having ridged lessons on a tight schedule is the only way to teach? I think we lose sight of what is important. We need to be more willing to be free and let the kids really explore. They get wrapped up in the most amazing conversations this way. There is a word for this, “neoteny” it means to never grow up. I don’t mean to be 40 years old and childish. But, I do think there is an important place for this. Being playful! Not stressing out to get things done. I would love to take my kids out to a park and just be free. Let the natural conversations and inquiries take place. Be playful. Be paper free. Capture what is happening and then make them write. Just joking.

    • Kate Lynch

      Last year Cristina ran an ECA ‘construction’ here in EY and had Y4 students come over and use the EY construction equipment once a week. You wouldn’t believe how excited these boys would be each week when they turned up and had an hour of uniterupted play time with what would be considered by most teachers as toys for ‘younger kids’. And the stuff they created was amazing. Often we’d ask them to leave their creation so it could inspire our younger students.
      Meanwhile, I’ve heard twice in the past two days that some testing students have already done EY1 in the country they are coming from so the parents have been asking if they can be considered for EY2. Already done EY1? What do they mean??? They’ve finished with play? They’ve riden a bike once already and so can tick that box? All students learn so much through play, not just the youngest students. No one should ever feel they are ‘done’ with it, not even us teachers! If you ever feel you need a good play, come on over!

  4. Simone

    Once a week, usually a Friday last period, I give my class “free” play/time. I know other teachers do as well but use more creative names such as Construction Time, Creative play, Developmental Play etc. I do this with all grades I have taught from Yr 1 – 6. The students look forward to this time all week and it can also be used as a behaviour management strategy for your more testing students. We normally have a “DJ” of the week who provides the music we listen to and I am always impressed with the choices students make in this time. Last Friday a student asked if they could write poetry, others were participating in a read-aloud, another couple making congratulation cards for Kate, a small group were playing a computer game together, some were playing with Lego. Even during “free” time, valid learning and connections take place. Peer relationships are strengthened (sometimes challenged) and it provides an opportunity for the teacher to observe/take anecdotal notes or join in the fun. I think it is a nice way to finish off the week for everyone!

  5. Mr. Sam

    I do the Free Time thing too and often change my expectations for the time as I see the need for different things in my kids. Most immediately rush for the computer and many ask if they can use Facebook. I resisted that until I saw this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tahTKdEUAPk in which one person said that kids these days have a more creative life online than they do in 8 hours at school. Not strictly true, of course, but still enough to make you think. So, I created a teacher Facebook account for myself and allow them to use Facebook during Free Time as long as I am “their friend” and that they have their parents’ permission to have an account.

    Some kids, when left to their own devices, do some amazing things. Simone’s comment made me remember these amazing little sculptures a kid made recently: http://6ssatnist.wordpress.com/2010/10/15/structures/

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